I’ve spent the last week in bed with this miserable end-of-summer illness that’s going around, but the upshot is that I watched loads of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Years ago, when Buffy was already in its fifth season, I happened to catch an episode and was immediately hooked. I’d forgotten how much I once craved a female superhero. Coincidentally, this was also when Alias started, and though Sydney Bristow boasted no actual super powers, I still loved to watch her kick ass, especially in that bright red wig.
As a late 70s tot, I was a big fan of Linda Carter’s incarnation of Wonder Woman, Diana Prince, though I was far too young to understand much about the story. There’s a picture of me, about three years old, standing in the living room in my Wonder Woman Underoos, and I can barely contain my excitement.
As I got older, I searched for similar themes in books–not warriors necessarily but girls and women who took control, solved problems, made decisions, and changed the world in some way if only in their little communities. Therefore, I read a lot of Nancy Drew, and I was really drawn to the notion of a regular girl fighting crime because it made me feel like I could do that sort of thing.
And that’s what I liked about Buffy Summers and Sidney Bristow. One was a blond, outgoing high-school student and secret chosen one, while the other was a graduate student in English (just like me!) and world-class spy. While these shows had their flaws, I liked how Buffy addressed the good girl/bad girl binary: Buffy couldn’t be just one or the other; ultimately, she had to be both. She had to accept that her dark side was an essential part of her and was not such a terrible thing to embrace. A girl or woman could be multi-dimensional, have conflicting feelings, be tough and firm if she wanted to, and drive the story. She didn’t need to be anyone’s sidekick. She didn’t need saving. And she didn’t need to please everyone.
Has there been another good female superhero since then? I suppose Katniss is one, though she doesn’t have super powers and there’s that tiresome love triangle that guides much of her story. But who else? I admit that I’m not very knowledgeable about comics, but there’s a reason for that. The few women characters always seemed to be impossibly busty and done up in just a strip of leather. To the rescue: artist Alex Law’s Little Girls Are Better at Drawing Superheroes Than You displays little girls’ re-interpretations of superheroes, and they are uplifting and exciting. Little girl Hulk in a tutu might be the best thing ever.
There’s been an influx of superhero movies lately, but they’re mostly the same old stories of straight white dudes. Supposedly, Marvel is a pinch interested in making a female superhero movie because they see a hole they can fill, but they aren’t ready to move. Furthermore, this world is in dire need of more superheroes that aren’t white. Can we get a black Batman or Arab Harry Potter?
Enter Qahera, who breaks the mold and then some. Egyptian artist Deena’s veiled female Muslim superhero fights both misogyny and Islamophobia. Qahera deals with current, real-life scenarios such as sexual harassment and the sexist response of Egypt’s police to said harassment.
It’s fun to imagine having super powers and using them to kick a little ass, especially when faced with a corrupt police force or tyrannical regime, but Ciudad Juárez has its own superhero right now, minus actual super powers, one assumes. A woman calling herself Diana the Huntress (excellent name choice, though I prefer her Greek form, Artemis) has been shooting bus drivers in response to women’s frequent sexual abuse at the hands of the drivers. Authorities say she’s getting revenge, but considering the utter lack of police and government response to rampant femicide in Juarez, you might call it justice.
The thing is I don’t think violence really is a part of justice. I don’t actually want to respond to violence with violence. I think the value in a good superhero tale is not in graphic violence but in the symbolism. Buffy didn’t kill humans, only monsters, and those monsters were the physical manifestation of angsty teen emotions. One of the things I loved about Buffy was that it wasn’t just good vs. evil. Buffy was about accepting that there’s no such thing as perfectly packaged categories of good and evil. There are subversive feelings and ideas lurking beneath cheerleader smiles.
Rather tellingly, Juarez officials have put far more effort into catching this single woman who has killed two men (and wears a blond wig, by the way) than into finding the perpetrators of the mass rape and murder of the city’s female citizens. Clearly, serious cultural change–not violence–is what’s needed to end gender-based violence in Mexico, Egypt, or anywhere else. Transforming traditional narratives, especially superhero stories which are part of our collective consciousness (i.e., the mythic hero’s journey), are an important part of this necessary cultural change. Though that may be why Diana the Huntress chose an archetypal hero as her nom de guerre.
What I responded to most in superhero stories from Wonder Woman to Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the image of a curious, bold, strong, and smart girl or woman who could lead people and effect change. That’s why Nancy Drew was a kind of superhero to me. She saw problems in her world and found a way to solve them on her own. Like Nancy, Diana, and Buffy, I was never interested in being a damsel in distress (or fragile princess, a mythologized Diana of another kind), in letting life just happen to me. I wanted to make life happen, and I wanted to solve problems. That’s what the best superheroes do. If our superheroes reflected more diversity, we might be more inclined to see these strengths in people no matter their gender, ethnicity, religion, etc.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it feels like Athena is about to bust out of my skull, so I must get back to fighting the good fight against the simple cold.
Last week I wrote about violence against women in crime fiction and detective shows, and I mentioned that these kinds of stories often lead us to believe that there is always some kind of monster lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike. While most women are attacked by someone they know, we also live with fear of stranger rape as a fact of life. Maybe “fear” isn’t quite the right word. Awareness? We are always aware of potential threats to our bodies–partly because frequent verbal harassment reminds us that violence is not far behind–and so go about the world knowing that horrible things sometimes lie just under the surface of a seemingly pleasant moment: a night out with friends, a quick trip to the store, a walk in a park.
I said last week that even though these threats are out there, I try not to spend a lot of time thinking about them despite what these stories and the media would have me think. Two days after I wrote that, I was lacing up my running shoes and glancing at the local news online. I discovered that a woman had been sexually assaulted the day before at the park where I run several days a week. She was walking a trail with her two-year-old daughter in the middle of the afternoon.
A great deal of cussing ensued in my living room.
Needless to say, many in the community and employees of the park are angry, feeling like an important part of all our lives–where we seek peace, fellowship, and pleasure–has been attacked. I run for release, for serenity. But I also work out a lot of creative ideas while I’m running. I like to run at this particular park because it has miles and miles of trails to choose from–with dreamy sunflower fields, old marble quarries, and lush, tree-covered tunnels that make everything magical.
For me, a good run or long walk is magical. My feet can barely keep up with my imagination as it takes off in different directions, conjuring up ideas, crafting narratives, developing characters. I spend a lot of time just letting ideas percolate before I ever write a word. It’s my favorite part of writing, the wandering mind. There’s something about communing with nature that sets my mind free; I can become anyone or anything in that moment. It’s like lucid dreaming. As long as I’m moving forward, the scene in my head is as vibrant as jewelweed along a stream.
I don’t know what I would do without this part of the process. Granted, it hasn’t always been part of my creative process. I used to write poetry strictly, and all I needed was a pen and paper to make something happen. It might not always be good, but there would be something salvageable to be put to work the next day. When I began writing fiction, however, I realized I needed a different approach. I couldn’t just sit down and write and expect there to be a full narrative, so running and long walks have become a critical part of my life. There’s something about a physical challenge that engages my mind in a way I never would have expected. It also helps me deal with stress, anxiety, or other frustrations.
I’m always aware of what can happen when I’m out there. There’s that word again. One has to be aware. Some of the trails become quite isolated, and I pay attention to my surroundings and sometimes look back to make sure that men who pass me don’t double back. Balancing daydreaming with defensiveness is a complicated act, but I’m sure it’s one that many women are used to.
Every time I’ve gone out since this attack, my imagination has taken me in a very different direction. All the stories and characters are the same: I fight this guy. I win. I stop him. I become like a superhero, a warrior, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Jennifer Garner in Alias. I imagine possessing Buffy’s super strength.
And then I’ve spent an hour dedicated to committing violence. I don’t like it. I’ve run out some of my anger, but my muscles are tighter than usual. So much for release.
My heart goes out to this woman and her family. It could have been any of us, but she’s the one who has to live with it, who has to find a way to make sure it doesn’t haunt her child. The police have released a sketch of the attacker, and I hope someone turns him in.
In the meantime, I will keep running wherever I want. And I will find a way to go back to the kinds of stories I want to create. I won’t let him change my life. Though I may have some tricks up my sleeve if you meet me on the trail.
I tried to watch a historical fiction miniseries on Netflix the other day, but I had to give up. Two episodes in, I’d seen at least five sexual assaults: one rape, three attempted rapes, and two different scenarios wherein unctuous men fondled women’s breasts against their will. Granted, the story took place in the fourteenth century when ideas about women and violence were somewhat different than they are now, but I’d had more than enough. Instead, I turned to Emma, letting Jeremy Northam‘s Mr. Knightley and the clueless but wonderful Miss Bates (“Pork!”) cleanse my brain.
Years ago I read Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, in which Inga Muscio urged readers to stop watching movies that depict rape. I did that for a while, and then I gave up. For one thing, I didn’t always know a rape scene was coming. For another, there were some really good movies and TV shows that sometimes addressed rape, and I hated missing them even if I didn’t want to watch the rape scene. Though I suspect Muscio is probably right that we should just completely reject rape scenes.
I watched The Sopranos, well after it aired, and nearly tapped out in season three when the violence, especially against women, reached its peak. I’m glad I stuck with it because The Sopranos was a phenomenal series, but I wonder what it does to me to witness staged violence so regularly and what it does to the actors who portray it. And I wonder about anyone who can sit through a rape scene and not feel a crushing weight. Moreover, through TV and cinema, we typically see women as victims and men as aggressors, both tiresome and harmful gender stereotypes.
Admittedly, I am a big fan of British (and European) detective shows. From Miss Marple and Pouirot to Inspector Lynley, Lewis and Hathaway, and now (or then) Endeavor Morse, I devour Masterpiece Mystery. Who knew Oxford dons could be so murderous? Rather obsessively, I raced through all seven seasons of Prime Suspect, in love with the indomitable Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison. I followed Kenneth Branaugh’s gloomy Kurt Wallander around the Swedish countryside and Mireille Enos’s intense Sarah Linden as she followed clues through drizzly Seattle in The Killing, though I have yet to watch the Scandinavian originals of both. I loved Idris Elba as Luther and Malin Crépin as Annika Bengtzon.
But I am tired of women being beaten, tied up, raped, strangled, stabbed, and wrapped in plastic. I should also point out that these women, like the detectives who work on their cases, tend to be white, as though we couldn’t possibly care about people of color being attacked.
And I’m tired of worrying about deranged men who plan to sneak up on me while I’m unlocking my car door or break into my house while I’m sweetly slumbering. (I don’t actually worry about these things that much, but, to some extent, that’s the message some of these shows send.)
Off screen, most women do become victims of violence at some point in their lives, but their lives are about so much more than victimhood. On screen, women are often reduced to victims or defined by the physical attacks they endure. Furthermore, by impressing upon us the idea that attacks by strangers are so common, these shows (by these shows, I mean all shows that center on violence against women, especially US detective shows that have spawned iterations in multiple cities; Masterpiece Mystery is the least offender) undermine the seriousness of the violence most women face: intimate partner violence and “date rape,” which I put in quotes because the common terminology also implies a less serious form of violence than “rape.”
A new British show popped up on Netflix recently. In The Fall, Gillian Welch plays Stella Gibson, a bad-ass detective superintendent called to Northern Ireland to review a murder case. Stella is the next-generation Jane Tennison: sharp, focused, purposeful, demanding, and fully in control of her own life. She ends up tracking a serial killer, who, by day, is just a normal family guy working as a bereavement counselor! No one in his life has any clue that he’s a devious killer! I loved Stella so much that I finished the first season despite my utter disinterest in serial killers, my disgust with the focus on the killer’s detailed methods and trophy-stroking, and my absolute disbelief that no one has noticed that this man lives two completely different lives. I’m pretty sure there would be some red flags.
I appreciate a female detective–or a group of women code breakers, as in The Bletchley Circle. I appreciate a show that follows one case for the entire season instead of showing us a new murdered woman each week, a show that has plenty of male victims like a regular detective’s job, and a show that doesn’t shove every graphic detail in your face. But outside of most Masterpiece shows, which are tame enough for a PBS audience, this isn’t enough. And on US networks, there is little in this genre that I appreciate.
I still close my eyes or sometimes leave the room when a woman is being beaten (unless she’s a ninja or spy or boxer or superhero) or raped. My stomach contracts, and I hold my breath, willing the moment to end. But loads of people continue chomping on their popcorn and staring at the screen.
So here’s my question:
Can film and television address the issue of violence against women without normalizing, sexualizing, glamorizing, or unintentionally promoting it; punishing women for making choices; reifying the idea of woman as victim; and playing into traditional ideas of femininity and masculinity?
Is that too much to ask for?
Most of the shows I listed by name were originally books. I’ve never read them. Is that weird? I always like to read a good book before seeing the movie or TV version, but when it comes to detective stories, I’ve just never bothered. I did read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo after watching the Swedish movie to see how the book dealt with violence against women. It was easier to take in written form but still quite rough.
It turns out that killing women sells a lot of books. In fact, they have their own genre: fem-jep, as in female jeopardy. It’s a subject that has generated some controversy over the last few years. There are interesting discussions among feminist crime fiction writers and readers about women victims, book critics who can’t take another bloody breast, and writers who speak out against “gratuitous literary rape.”
I don’t think violence on the page has the same effect as violence on the screen simply because watching violence will always be more visceral, but it’s still problematic. In literature, the representation of violence against women can still contribute to rape culture by normalizing violence, playing on a passive/aggressive binary determined by gender, and encouraging us to connect woman with victim. Therefore, I ask the same question of literature as I do of film and television.
I welcome your ideas. In the meantime, here are some excellent considerations for writing about violence.
A few months ago, I wrote about the importance of reading literature by people who do not identify as men. I should add to that: people who do not identify as straight white men. We get straight white male perspectives through literature, film, TV, music, news, and other media so pervasively that we often fail to recognize the norms we’ve been subjected to over the years and how these norms have affected our lives and our world views.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much diversity to convince us that things have gone too far in the other direction. Studies show that when women and girls are given more time than usual (though still less time than men and boys) to speak, the perception is that they are monopolizing the speaking time. Australian scholar Dale Spender notes, “The talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence. Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women.”
NPR’s All Things Considered recently explored the issue of how we perceive “enough” diversity in Hollywood. Here’s a critical part of Jackie Lyden’s interview with Geena Davis, who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004:
DAVIS: We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study, where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there’s 17 percent women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.
LYDEN: Oh, my goodness.
DAVIS: So is it possible that 17 percent women has become so comfortable, and so normal, that that’s just sort of unconsciously expected?
LYDEN: Why else, Geena Davis, do these kinds of disparities matter?
DAVIS: What we’re, in effect, doing is training children to see that women and girls are less important than men and boys. We’re training them to perceive that women take up only 17 percent of the space in the world. And if you add on top of that, that so many female characters are sexualized – even in things that are aimed at little kids – that’s having an enormous impact as well.
These figures should make us stop and rethink our assumptions about what we’re seeing, hearing, and reading. As Davis rightly points out, what’s even more disturbing is that the women we typically see taking 17 percent of the space are sexualized, airbrushed, false-eyelashed (What’s with all the spider eyelashes worn by every single woman on screen lately?), etc. They frequently serve as the girlfriend of the main character, a byproduct of his story, a character with no agency of her own.
In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote about this problem in fiction: “[A]lmost without exception [women] are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen‘s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.”
Alison Bechdel, the author of the magnificent graphic memoir Fun Home (a must-read that will change the way you see graphic work), devised what is known as the Bechdel Test. A film or TV show passes the test if it contains at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than men. You can also do a version of this test to watch for people of color talking about something other than white people. It’s certainly lower than the standard we work towards, but it gives us a basic way of determining succinctly whether marginalized people are remotely represented as actual people or simply as resources for straight white men.
One way we can change this is to support movies that bust the norm. Hollywood studios usually balk at spending money on women-driven movies, and even the success of Bridesmaids and The Hunger Games didn’t change that. But The Heat, a buddy cop movie starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, crushed White House Down and opened at $40 million, enough to greenlight a sequel. If we keep supporting movies with strong, funny, determined women, we just might get more of them. And if the percentage of women in movies increases, that might have ripple effects. If women make up higher percentages of people on screen, we might notice where they are missing in our institutions.
“But the color of a Negro’s skin makes him easily recognizable, makes him suspect, converts him into a defenseless target.”
–Richard Wright, Black Boy
I’ve had friends tell me that they can’t imagine wasting their time with fiction when there is so much going on in the world that they need to learn about, so they read only nonfiction. I don’t understand why we need to make such distinctions, but I say, if you really want to understand an experience, read fiction. Susan Sontag once described reading as “an education of the heart.” She said, “Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. And it takes us out of ourselves, too.”
Imagination often gets trapped in the realm of fear mongering. Over and over, we see carefully constructed images that are meant to stoke fear in our hearts, and our imagination runs wildly through the forest of racial profiling, xenophobia, nationalism, etc. If we deconstruct those images instead, we find common ground, people who love and mourn and work and play just like we do. But that takes a different kind of imagination.
Iris Murdoch wrote: “In intellectual disciplines and in the enjoyment of art and nature we discover value in our ability to forget self, to be realistic, to perceive justly. We use our imagination not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real.” In other words, through art, we are reconnected to the world–we gain empathy, the ability to imagine ourselves in the life of someone whose experience is very different from ours and to feel what they feel.
I’ve heard from white people who have a hard time seeing the problem of race in the murder of Trayvon Martin, the police response, and the subsequent trial of George Zimmerman. Since it’s clear to many of us that there is pervasive racism involved, from beginning to end, I can only guess that these folks don’t have a good understanding of systemic racism and have not put themselves in Trayvon’s place, that is, have not fully imagined what it might be like to walk down the street as a black boy in a world that criminalizes black bodies.
I’ve also heard from white people who do see racism in this case and keep thinking about the experience of boys like Trayvon and their parents. One of my good friends, who is white and has a white baby boy, said last night that she thinks of the parents of black boys and the fear they must feel as their sons grow up. One of her black friends once said to her that she worried constantly about how best to raise her sons in an environment where they are set up to fail.
Like black girls, black boys have no voice. They are silenced. We, as a culture, do not seek metaphor in the language of black kids; we hear only noise and shut it down. (See Rachel Jeantel, for example.) Our institutions have created a fictive black boy that permeates our consciousness and convinces us that black boys aren’t worth saving, or even worse, they are worth killing.
I include the arts, particularly in terms of popular culture, in those institutions. A few years ago, The Guardian published a piece on the lack of popular fiction for black men, and the author, Aaron Akinyemi, said: “When [Michael] Obiora pitched his novel to a television executive, the producer liked the story but told him bluntly that mainstream audiences would be unwilling to see a black character without a gun in his pocket.”
bell hooks wrote in Reel to Real: “The process by which any of us alter the way we look at images is political. Until everyone can acknowledge that white supremacist aesthetics shape creativity in ways that disallow and discourage the production by any group of images that break with this aesthetic, audiences can falsely assume that images are politically neutral.”
Assuming these images are politically neutral is like believing that race played no part in what happened to Trayvon Martin. In light of the violent death of yet another black boy and the subsequent absence of justice, I offer some fiction, poetry, and film that can help us understand why these things happened, and continue to happen, because Trayvon is only one of many. May these works counter the usual images, enhance our empathy, and encourage us to fight fear.
- Native Son, Richard Wright: Wright’s novel chronicles the story of Bigger Thomas, who feels his fate has already been determined by his social conditions.
- Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison: This novel, by the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Beloved, follows the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead, just a few generations removed from slavery.
- Fruitvale Station, dir. Ryan Coogler: This film, about the death of Oscar Grant at the hands of an overzealous cop, stars Michael B. Jordan, who played Wallace in The Wire, and just opened to excellent reviews.
- “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” and “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmet Till,” Gwendolyn Brooks: These two poems were inspired by the death of Emmett Till.